Revelation: Scripture or Tradition?
Scripture or Tradition?
Louis Mahoney, O .P.
Christian unity was one of the goals of the recently concluded
E cumenical Council. Before this goal co uld be a ttained , Pope John
XXIII realized th at the Ca tholic Church would have to re-examine
herself by clearing up misunderstandings which h ave served to block
a possible dialogue with our "separated brethren. " In the Council's
fi rst session, a document was introduced representing the fundamental
problem of disunity- the sources of revelation. P ope John set the
ecumenical tone of the Council by intervening and sending the document back to a committee for revision because of a general discontent
concerning the first part of the document entitled " The Two Sources
of R evelation." The very title suggests an equality between Scriptu re
and tradition, the meaning of which has never been defin ed by the
C hurch. A di alogue could h a rdly be expec ted to arise from a document which would tend to furth er ali ena te Protesta nts who accord
the primacy to Scripture.
The problem of tradition was first discu ed in the period immedia tely prior to the Reformation . M any religious practices within
the Church, such as indulgences an d the venera tion of relics, were
seemingly without a ba is. W ere these practices revealed by the Word
of God ? Or, did they spring up at a later date in the history of
C hristia nity? M artin Luther solved the problem . H e rendered all
traditions as la te upstarts, or human rath er than divin e in origin. The
only source by which revela tion is transmitted to us is scripture ( sola
Scri ptura ) .
Scripture or Tradition?
The Council of Trent reacted against th e position or theory of
sola Scriptura. In its defense of tradition as a valid source of revelation, the Council decla red on April 8, 1546:
This truth a nd instruction are contained in th e written books and in
the unwritten traditions, whi ch have been received by the Apostles from
the mouth of Christ Himse lf, or from the Apostl es themse lves, at the
dictation of th e Holy Spirit, have come clown even to us, transmitted
as it \\'ere from hand to hand; ( the Snyod ) fo llowing th e exa mpl es of
the orthodox Fathers, receives and holds in veneration with an equa l
affection of piety a nd revere nce a ll the books both o f the Old and of the
New Testament, ince one God is the author of both, and a lso the
traditions themselves, those that appe rta in both to faith a nd morals,
as having been dictated either by Christ's own word o f mouth, or by the
Holy Spirit, a nd prese rved in the Catholic C hurch by a co ntinu ous successio n ( D enz. , o. 783 )
Although this decree accomplished the refutation of the sola Scriplura position, it has suffered many diverse interpretations among
The origin al draft of the decree employed the formula which reflected the dominant pre-Tridentine theology. It read: " . . . that
this truth is contained partly in written books, partly in unwritten
traditions." 1 The use of this formula was primarily meant to emphasize a proper source of revelation outside of Scripture itself. The influence of nominalism, insisting on the separate existence of real
things, left its mark on Tridentine theology.
A small minority, led by Nacchianti, Bishop of Chicoggia, questioned the proposed wording of the document. Nacchianti stated that
no one is ignorant of the fact that H oly Writ contains everything
necessary to salvation. Another bishop added that tradition is essentially only an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, not its equal.
Shortly afterward , the final draft was presented; it clearly indicated
a compromise between the two positions. The " partly-partly" formula
was dropped in favor of the single word "and ." The final wording
avoids an obvious parallelism of the two source theory; whereas, the
initial wording indubitably divided the two. By this slight modification, the Council left the point undecided, allowing future theologians
the opportunity to delve into the meaning of tradition.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Council, speculation concerning
what the Fathers meant became the center of controversy. The impetus provided by these diverse opinions is even more acutely felt
today and is responsible for one of the most interesting discussions
now in progress among Catholic scholars. There are two main questions being asked: did Trent mean that revelation came down to us
through two sources independent of one another? Or on the other
hand, did Trent wish to emphasize the classical view that Scripture
contains all revealed truths, and that the Church's faith , which includes apostolic tradition, interprets it?
During the Counter-Reformation, various solutions were proposed.
The common opinion immediately following the Council was determined by the influence of the Loci theologici of Melchior Cano,
by the catechisms and theological writings of Canisius, and the
Controversies of Bellarmine. All of these favored Scripture as a partial
source of revelation, complemented by tradition. Thus, the document
was interpreted in its original "partly-partly" formula. But it must
be remembered that theology of this period was vehemently a:ltiProtestant. Consequently, when the Protestants stressed only one
source, Catholics reacted by insisting on two separate sources. Theologians took the word "tradition" (which was not defined by Trent )
to mean "the sum total of all the apostolic traditions, or at least the
sum total of the revelation contained therein, and so transmitted to
us in a non-Scriptural manner." 2 Because of the strength of this
position, it has managed to survive the evolution of a clearer concept
of tradition, and has managed to be influential among some Catholic
theologian examining the problem today.
The dawning of a contemporary theology of tradition came at the
time of the First Vatican Council and is associated with Cardinal
Franzelin. The concept of tradition took on a broader scope to include
not only the content, but more importantly, the very action whereby
divine revelation is handed down within the Church. The importance
of Franzelin is summed up by Walter Burghardt, who writes :
He distinguished , more clearly than had been don e in the past, the
active and objective aspects of tradition, and set in strong relief the
role of the magisterium. Objective tradition is, for Franze lin, the doct rine
transmitted; active tradition is the ensemb le of acts and means whereby
the doctrine is transmitted. The two as pec t should be distingu ished;
they ca nnot be epa rated. 3
In other words, there is now the notion of a living tradition, transmission, continuation of the message of C hrist.
Prior to the development of this "new" concept, Protestant theologians were beginning to modify their doctrine by admitting that
Revelation : Scriptu re or Trad it io n?
Scripture did not contain all of revelation. They argued tha t the
Church could only be understood if it were studied as it existed in
the fi rst four centuries. T hey aid: " tradition was a vital thing; th e
faith was still in the people's h earts, not just written on paper. But
with the passing of centuries the church had fallen a way from its
original vital source."·l Although Catholic theologians did not agree
with the Protesta nt claim of gradual defection, the a rgument did
exert an influence by drawing Ca tholics to a better understanding of
For post-Franzelin contributors, such as Billot, active tradition was
synonymous with the teaching activity of the bishops in uni on with
the Pope, that is, the magisterium. Active tradition becom es the prima ry meaning of the activity of the magisterium. From this arose
the " wholly-partly" idea- that the W ord of God is partly in Scripture a nd totally in tradition. Geiselmann writes : " tradition is really
twofold ; it interprets Scripture, and it completes or adds to wh at
Scripture says." 5 Still, this is not the ultim a te or perfect co ncept in
the evolutionary process.
D epa rting from the " wholly-partly" concept, an even fuller notion
of tradition has developed . The roots of this understanding are found
in the work of J ohn Adam Mohler in the middle of the nineteenth
century. M ohler accepted the " wholly-partly" concept a nd also the
classical concept of tradition as a living thing-adding tha t it is
living in the Church now as much as the Church of the early centuries. But he went one step further by breaking entirely with the
idea th at Scripture and tradition a re two sources of God's revela tion
which sta nd side by side and n ever meet. R ather, the two penetrate
each other, each giving to a nd receiving from the other. In other
words, Scripture cannot be understood without understanding the
development of doctrine in the Church , a nd vice versa. Scrip ture
and tradition are dependent upon on e another.
M ohler's p osition was developed further by his pupil J ohn Bapti t
Kuhn. In its ultimate unfolding the notion might be called the
" wholly-wholly" concept. J osef R . Geiselmann, a contempora ry disciple a nd principal exponent of this con cept, states th at in his interpreta tion of Kuhn's final formulation:
In content, Scri ptu re is perfect an d comp lete . . . . T ra diti on has the
function of in te rpreting a doctrina ll y com plete Scriptu re. Scripture
gives the principles, the star ti ng points, or indications, which tradi tion
ex pla ins a nd applies. . . . T he word o f God m ay be fo und in it
totality in the living tradition of the Church. All the revealed word of
God is to be found in Sacred Scripture as interpreted by living
This view is held by a growmg number of eminent Catholic theologians. All revelation is contained in the Scriptures, at least in
the sense that by the close of the apostolic era the substance of the
Chri tian message would have found its way into the written and
inspired accounts of the kerygma and catechesis. A reading of the
Scripture in the h istorical context and spirit in which it was written
allows the message to emerge. Therefore, these theologians do not
find it difficult to maintain that tradition is essentially the interpreter
Among contemporary theologians, following in the trends established by Mohler and Kuhn, are such outstanding scholars as August
Deneffe, Karl Rahner, P. A. Liege, O.P. , M. Chenu, O.P., and J.
Danielou. Father Rahner concludes an essay (in which he proposes
a Catholic sola Scriptura solution based on his own concept of inspiration and on the unity of the object of faith ) which expresses
the open-mindedness of the new movement towards an understanding
of tradition. He writes:
Please beg th e Holy Spirit of God to guide the Church to leave the
whole que tion open at the Second Vatican Council. We do not expect
and should not expect the Church to go beyond the prese nt stage of
cla rifi ca ti on of its fa ith-consciousne s and ta ke our side. It is completely ufficient if the Church says aga in what it sa id in the Council
of Trent: Scripture and tradition are two elements of th e one transmission of faith. Then we theologians a nd th e future fa ith-co nsciousness
of the Church ca n consider from a better vantage point in the next
decades or centuries how to dete rmine the exact rela tions hip of these
two elements. Let us hope that this is how things will turn out. 7
Rahner's plea for a non-conclusive statement from the Conciliar
Fathers was heard. In the decree on the sources of revelation, the
leap to the "wholly-wholly" theory is not taken. H owever, an approach is made in the decree toward clarifying and unveiling the
concept rather th an merely restating the affirmation of Trent. The
co-ordination and interplay of Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium are especially emphasized by the tenth article of the decree.
The concluding paragraph to thi ~e c t:on reads:
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, a nd the
teaching a uthority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise
Revelation : Scripture or Tradition?
design, arc so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without
the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the
action of th e one H oly Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation
Certainly, this represents a much clearer concept, and at the same
time, is capable of further development.
The first reactions to the document were not long in coming.
Gabriel Moran feels it has unveiled a more fundamental question
than the Scripture-tradition controversy raises. Moran attempts to
avoid favoring any previous theory and hopes, in the final analysis,
to reconcile the long disputed relationship of the two elements of
revelation. Past theologians generally overlooked the investigation
of the nature of revelation itself; but "the rethinking of the revelational process has undercut the Scripture-tradition question and
focused upon the underlying difficulties." 8 For Moran, revelation
is "the intersubjective experien ce of God and the human community
brought to full intensity in the God-man and being brought to participated perfection in the rest of men." 9
God revealed His salvific message to man in an evolutionary process, culmin ating in the sending of His Son. Now man is gradually
evolving a clearer notion of the nature of His revelation. With the
impetus provided by Vatican II, the theology of revelation may
finally receive the respect and attention which was lacking in a less
Josef Rupert Geiselmann, "Scripture and Tradition 111 Catholic Theology,"
Th eology D igest VI (Winter, 1958 ) , p. 74.
2 Wilfrid F. D ewan, " Tradition Is a Livin g M essage," Catholic World, 197- 1180
(July, 1963). p. 240.
3 Walter J. Burghard t, " The Catholic Concept of Tradition in the Li ght of
M odem Theological Thought," Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Convention of the
Catholic Th eological Society of America (D etroit, 195 1), pp. 59-60.
4 Geiselmann, p. 76.
G Ibid. , p . 78.
7 Karl R ahner, "Scripture and Tradition," Th eology Digest XII ( Spring, I 964 ),
s cabriel M ora n, Th eology of R evelation (New York, 1966 ), p. 110.
n Ib id., p. 18 1.